007 Turns 60

Beginning with “Dr. No” (1962)—“I gave orders he should be killed. Why is he still alive?”—and ending with “No Time to Die” (2021)—“Why would I betray you?”—Hollywood has provided 26 James Bond movies, or 27 if you count the misbegotten parody, “Casino Royale (1967). 

Bond movies portray a British secret agent, usually played by a British actor, supported by a British cast playing British public servants, often fighting British villains. The series is built on the writings of a British novelist. But make no mistake, the James Bond movies are thoroughly American. We have our domestic counterparts such as the Tom Cruise franchise “Mission Impossible,” but Bond movies have set the standard for high-action, sexy spy thrillers for 60 years. Why so? It is as if the displacement of American fantasies onto a British hero adds an element of sophistication we colonials will never attain.

When “Dr. No” was released I was nine and my parents didn’t let me see it. Some of my classmates, however, came from more permissive homes and I heard about the movie from them. One even had a pulp paperback copy of “Dr. No,” Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel, from which he entertained the boys by reading some of the gamier scenes. Imagining such scenes on screen, I understood my parents’ veto, and their edict continued to stand for “From Russia with Love” (1963), “Goldfinger” (1964) and “Thunderball” (1965). 

Eventually I caught up with 007’s early forays on screen, but I never became the kind of fan who could discuss the finer points of Sean Connery’s tuxedos, why George Lazenby quit after performing Bond only once (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” 1969), or whether Q’s gadgets are scientifically feasible. Today what we can loosely call a “community” of Bond aficionados discusses Bond villains, cars, conquests, and escapes with the breadth and precision of opera buffs opining on recent performances of “Tosca.” 

Incidentally, “Tosca” shows up in “Quantum of Solace” (2008) where Bond, played by Daniel Craig, goes to the Bregenz Festival in Vienna while Puccini’s Scarpia is singing “Va, Tosca.” The insidious criminal organization Spectre is using the performance as a cover for a conference, with the properly miked evildoers dispersed through the audience. Bond tricks them into standing so he can capture them on camera. In a delightful aside, a genuine opera lover, annoyed by the disruption, whispers to his wife, “‘Tosca’ isn’t for everyone.” 

Dry humor is as much a part of the Bond repertoire as dazzling stunts. 

That’s one of my conclusions from my month-long immersion in the entire oeuvre—courtesy of Amazon Prime, which, in honor of the 60th anniversary of “Dr. No,” has made almost all the movies available. “Never Say Never Again(1982), in which a then-52-year-old Sean Connery reprised his most famous role, requires a wider search; and the 1967 version of “Casino Royale” has sunk to obscurity. 

The “Dr. No” anniversary is shadowed a bit, I suppose, by the recent death of Bond who was shaken, stirred, and disintegrated at the end of “No Time to Die.” The series is strangely bookended by the emphatic “no.” In fact, the makers of “No Time to Die have gone on the record to say that there is no trickery here as there was in “You Only Live Twice” (1967) where Bond was fake-killed in order to throw his enemies off track. This time, Bond is dead-dead-dead, at least as far as the Daniel Craig era is concerned. 

The franchise, of course, is not dead at all. Audiences will simply adjust a year or two from now to a new actor occupying a new storyline. That blank slate brings apprehensions. In Never Say Never Again, Q welcomes Bond’s (Connery’s) return, saying, “Now you’re on this. I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence!” And Bond replies, “I certainly hope so, too.” In our age of nouveau puritanical piety, I worry that this insouciance will be crushed. We have already moved from the era where Bond is asked by his foe, Maximilian Largo, “Do you lose as gracefully as you win?” (1982) and he answers with aplomb, “I don’t know, I’ve never lost,” to the era (2015) where Blofeld can rightly taunt Bond, “Did you think it was coincidence that all the women in your life ended up dead? . . . Me. It was all me, James. It’s always been me. The author of all your pain.” 

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The franchise darkened as the decades piled on. Bond became a tortured, lonely, unhappy soul, and witness to the deaths of his few close friends. The torture amped up over the years as well. In “Dr. No Bond faces a spider in his bed. InDie Another Day(2002) Bond played by Pierce Brosnan spends 14 months in a North Korean prison beaten and injected with scorpion venom. In “Casino Royale” (the serious 2006 version) the villain Le Chiffre beats Bond with a knotted rope in a very sensitive area. 

Surely Bond’s cinematic balladeers will change the tempo and the mood with the next outing, but I fear that MI-6’s next priority will be to fight climate change or to smash the worldwide conspiracy to market plastic straws. 

What can we take from the 26 Bond movies that are safely wrapped up? They offer a pretty rich reflection on Western culture of the last 60 years, all the better because they were certainly not intended that way. The movies do track current events. Dr. No intends to disrupt the U.S. space program. “From Russia with Love” plays with Cold War tensions, though the actual enemy is the ever-useful Spectre. In other movies, madmen try to provoke nuclear war. In the era of detente, MI-6 and Russia are grimly cooperative, each fearful of the hotheads on the other side. 

In “Moonraker” (1979), Bond (the Roger Moore version) takes on the monstrous Hugo Drax, who is the epitome of a radical environmentalist. Drax wants to rid the world of all human beings by means of a plant extract that will not harm any other form of life. Then he will return to Earth from outer space with his hand-picked crew of perfect humans to start over.

Paul R. Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968. The first Earth Day was in 1970. So Hollywood had the better part of a decade to devise a villain who carries the idea of humanity-as-blight to its logical terminus. Drax is an anticipatory combination of Bill Gates and Bill McKibben, both of whom have called for drastic reduction of the human population, though neither for Draxic measures, yet.

All the Bond movies are a testament to the sexual revolution. Beautiful women throw themselves at Bond, or at least put up token resistance. The movies celebrate concupiscence, though not sex without consequences given the high mortality rate about the “Bond girls.” The women are often teasingly named (Honey Ryder, Kissy Suzuki, Vesper Lynd, Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatopp, Tiffany Case, Mary Goodnight, etc.), always alluring, and sometimes daringly bad. Ursula Andress who played Honey Ryder in “Dr. No” didn’t say yes until the final scene, but all by herself she explained why my parents prohibited my seeing the movie.

For most of the Bond movies, the sex is heavily implied not shown, but this changed in the 1995 “Goldeneye” with Pierce Brosnan, when Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen)—an especially bad girl, (i.e. she gets sexual satisfaction only by killing her partner)—crushes a Canadian admiral in a leg lock. After that the Bond movies become a little looser in the bedroom but never prurient. 

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Bond had his final cigarette in 2002 in “Die Another Day.” He still, however, drinks martinis, which makes sense as they are the second most popular mixed drink today, just behind the margarita. 

At their best, the Bond movies are about closely integrated male virtues: loyalty, stamina, composure under pressure (sangfroid), bravery, quick thinking, improvisation, being at home anywhere in the world (cosmopolitanism), avid listening and sharp observation, and agility in a fight. No one would say that Bond is humble, but he is not a braggart and he shows off, so to speak, a bit modestly. When Hugo Drax challenges him to a duck shoot, setting Bond up to be killed by a sniper hidden in a tree, Bond kills the sniper instead. Drax: “You missed, Mr. Bond.” Bond, as the assassin’s corpse drops to the ground, “Did I?” 

To say that Bond exemplifies male virtues is to head into the stormy waters of Bond’s cultural critics. In the last of the 26 movies, Bond has retired from MI-6, and his 007 status has been awarded to Nomi, a black woman. She apparently has all the same qualities as Bond, putting paid to the idea that those are exclusively male virtues. I suppose we will see more of this sort of upending of supposed stereotypes in future Bond films, but the truth, though submerged, will remain that Bond is an ideal type of one kind of masculinity. There are, of course, many other types. Bond is not Sir Lancelot, the most chivalrous of knights, undefeated in battle. Bond is not the world-weary Philip Marlowe, though he has Marlowe’s loyalty. He’s not Shakespeare’s roistering Henry V, though like Henry he can shrug off his decadence. 

Ian Fleming’s Bond (I’ve not read all the books) is a man of action with civilized manners, but not much more than that. The Bonds that have been played on screen have cumulatively gained in quality, though the Roger Moore version in seven of the movies (1973-1985) takes the role as more of an occasion for playfulness than for heroism.  

The Bond movies seen in quick succession are formulaic but they are not the same. The formula includes breathtaking spectacles, usually in the opening moments. The movies whirl around the globe from great European cities to lush tropical islands, from the arctic, to the innards of volcanoes and undersea caverns. They set up death-is-certain diabolical traps from which Bond ingeniously or miraculously escapes. (Bond, as the laser beam edges towards cutting him in half: “Do you expect me to talk?” Goldfinger: “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”) 

Women, as noted, fall into his arms. At least one of them will die a grisly death at the hands of the bad guys. And more than likely one of the women will prove to be in cahoots with the chief villain. His local contact will be murdered. Cars will be wrecked. Virtually every known means of transportation on land, sea, air, or space will be employed sooner or later in a chase. Buildings will blow up. In a catastrophic climax, hundreds of henchmen will give up their gigs, and the same stuntmen will have to be killed a dozen times over. If a bomb is set to explode, Bond will defuse it with no seconds to spare. If the chief bad guy has a fondness for sharks, piranhas, Komodo dragons, industrial grinders, or other such unpleasantries, the chances are good that they will figure in the denouement. 

We know all that from the moment the Bond movie commences, but there is still delight in seeing just how the movie makes it new. I wasn’t around to see Greek tragedies performed on ancient Athenian stages, but the idea was that the playwrights worked with the limited corpus of Greek myths. A new play wasn’t expected to tell a brand new story but to tell the same old story in a fresh way. That’s how the Bond movies work. We pay attention to the old trope reimagined and re-purposed movie after movie. 

And we are genuinely shocked when something happens outside our expectations. When Dame Judi Dench’s M dies at the end of “Skyfall” (2012) it does feel like a piece of the earth has collapsed. The CIA operative Felix Leiter passed through many actors since Jack Lord played him in “Dr. No.” To see him killed in “No Time to Die” is to sense this movie means to snap the cords that held the series together. Will there be another Felix in the alternative universe of the next Bond?

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The Bond mythology was at some level about a seemingly immortal man. He could face any danger—flung from an airplane without a parachute, trapped in a swamp surrounded by hungry crocodiles, marooned on the roof of a collapsing building—and escape unscathed. He was also the man able to face down the faceless conspiracies of rich, powerful, evil men bent on wrecking the world: a secular savior acting out of loyalty to higher values. That the series now pauses on his self-sacrificing death leaves more questions than merely how to start over. James Bond, the man “licensed to kill” and living in a world of ruthless psychopaths who deserve to be killed, appears to be on a new kind of precipice. 

Yes, he has been threatened before by British bureaucrats who consider the 007 program obsolete, or who think that remote sensing and surveillance are all that is needed for national security. And Bond has already been remade several times to keep up with the socially approved forms of hedonism and epicurean tastes. But the Daniel Craig movies threaten the end of Bond as serenely self-contained. We now see Bond as a traumatized orphan, a “survivor” in the current sense of someone who carries the scars of his emotional injuries, and as someone ready to give it all up. He has a conscience—way too much conscience for the role. 

The assassin who is psychologically complex and conflicted is a popular trope these days. The HBO series “Barry” delivers perhaps the extreme version of it, sometimes hilariously. (The guilt-ridden assassin Barry to his friend, the Chechen gangster Hank, “Am I evil?” Hank: “Absolutely. Do I not tell you enough?”) This is the precipice on which the Bond character now sits. The man of action is about to fall—or has he already fallen?—into the world of self-doubt and existential angst. Can this person rappel down the side of a Siberian dam to blow up a bio-weapons factory? (Bond does that in the opening of “Goldeneye” 1995) Or will he stop to ask, “Why?” 

Can he shoot the momentarily unarmed murderous vixen? (Bond does at the end of “The World Is Not Enough” (1999), when the evil Elektra King says, “You wouldn’t kill me . . . you’d miss me.” Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, shoots and then comments to M, “I never miss.”) Or will Bond now pause to consider that Elektra has a hard life and executing her won’t bring any of her victims back?  

We are in danger of a Prufrocked Bond replacing the efficient defender of Queen, country, and the Western world. A little psycho-drama goes a long way. The five last Bond movies with Daniel Craig are the summit of this effort to bring Bond into the contemporary gestalt. And here it must end if the movie franchise is to have a future. The Bond who declared via Sean Connerly, “I’ve never lost,” has now been brought low, which is perhaps fitting for an age where Europe is out of energy and has lost the thread of Western civilization; where Britain is stumbling in the dark; and the United States is in the hands of a feeble kleptocrat. If Spectre had prevailed all those years ago, could we have been worse off? What would Ian Fleming do?

I asked at the outset why this British spy fantasy has become such an American thing. It is perhaps because Bond, through all the impersonations he has inhabited over 60 years, is the deviant individualist who still believes in the rightness of law and government and the wrongness of greed, selfishness, and the pursuit of power. He doesn’t go around giving speeches on these matters. He acts, and he acts in that paradox of the lawlessness that is sometimes needed to sustain the law. He is “licensed to kill,” a license that we might grant to Wyatt Earp or one of Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunters but which we would never grant to a contemporary American agent, knowing full well how that trust would be abused. Projected onto a stoic Englishman, the image of the assassin as an incorruptible guardian satisfies our longing for one good man when we are everywhere surrounded by spectres.

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